Queen of the Wave
An Esoteric Pop Opera In Three Parts
(Catskills; US: 31 Jan 2012; UK: 30 Jan 2012)
At the end of January this year, Catskills Records (in conjunction with Asthmatic Kitty) released Queen of the Wave, the fourth album from Finnish-Swedish anomaly Pepe Deluxé, a group centered around sonic scientists Paul Malmström and James Spectrum. Without much of a promotion budget or plans for a North American tour, the album did not storm the Billboard charts. Yet, the idiosyncratic LP, with its grandiose themes and occult-ish, scientific obsessions, is beginning to resonate with a diverse global audience. Indie bigwigs Pitchfork called it “a visionary work”, while one of the world’s most respected music recording technology magazines Sound on Sound called it an “immaculately produced and a really compelling listen!” By design, it’s a contemporary and exciting album, but here are five reasons why Queen of the Wave is destined to become a cult classic whose fame will no doubt grow and influence generations to come.
1. Promotes Existential Crises! (a.k.a. “Story”)
The story of Queen of the Wave is—in a word—epic. With a little embellishment from rare Victorian poetry, the opera’s libretto was largely taken from the book A Dweller on Two Planets and its sequel An Earth Dweller’s Return. Written in 1886, author Frederick S. Oliver claimed to have channeled the story from Phylos, as the Thibetan’s first person account about the triumphs and struggles of heroes and villains in the final days of Atlantis. The book outlines many of the psycho-spiritual beliefs (personalized heavens, reincarnation, astral projection) and technological achievements of the advanced Atlantean culture, some of which have since been realized (television, atomic telescope, high speed rail) and others that remain dreams (still waiting on that submarine/aircraft powered by night).
And, while it derives from a century-old book about a civilization that disappeared 12,000 years ago, the story as interpreted by Pepe is just fantastical enough to provoke hours of naval-gazing self-reflection, particularly considering its apocalyptic and overarching religious themes. Taken with a lighthearted approach, it’s a spot of quasi-scientific, retro-futuristic fun, a rather ridiculous mix of creative anachronism and new age theory, filled with sigils, incantations, exploration, and mountain-moving love. It’s open to interpretation and plainly exists as mythological mirth.
“With modern (especially digital) equipment it is possible to capture a very realistic version of a musical performance. We find that utterly uninteresting. In fact the sound of Pepe Deluxé is not the sound of any particular music style but a sound heavily influenced by the late ‘60s recordings… not just the music but the actual SOUND of those recordings. Like old color photographs or Technicolor films, the recording equipment and medium (tape) of the past did, in addition to capturing the performance, also add some magical makeup to it too.”
—Pepe Deluxé via Facebook
The old guard of the music industry remains mired in the traditional studio system, meaning that hi-fidelity only achieved in a big name studio is the assumed goal of all “great” albums. In reaction to this, there are currently many fine post-Internet albums being made in bedrooms and basements, care of Pro Tools and cheap gear sourced from Craigslist. One aspect that distinguishes Queen of the Wave is that, in its creation, Pepe Deluxé chose the road less traveled.
Rather than take the path of least resistance and make a straightforward rock album in a pro studio or via lo-fi home recording, both of which would have been easier options, Pepe Deluxé did it the hard way. Travelling far and wide, without financial incentive, they sourced all manner of arcane and theoretical recording technology, from a magnetic amplifier used to steer V-2 rockets in WWII to the only working chromatic gusli in the world. They bought vintage pre-amps used by studio pioneers like Joe Meek and Kearney Barton. They commissioned the creation and revision of obscure gear, including an audio saturator influenced by the crystal radio receiver of radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, an aether modulator which converts sound to pure magnetism and back which was based on a device for communicating with the dead that Thomas Edison was working on in the early 1920s, and the world’s only functional UTV-652 production mixer, which was used in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
However, the band did not go to all that trouble merely looking for gimmicks to spice up their sound. As well as satisfying their innate scientific curiosity, much of the instrumentation was chosen to support the lyrical and spiritual themes of the album. By far, the biggest example of this is the use of the Great Stalacpipe Organ, the world’s largest instrument, which Pepe chose for both its aural and physical properties. In A Dweller on Two Planets, the grand “Temple of Unfed Fire” in Atlantis is described thusly: “Instead of straight walls, or alcoves, or the ordinary arrangement of interiors, the enormous auditorium was in faithful semblance of a cave of stalactites and stalagmites.” The temple featured a great organ whose “deep tones” were “swelling”—words which aptly describe the look and sound of the Great Stalacpipe Organ in its setting at the Luray Caverns in Virginia.
It’s one thing to have all the pieces of a puzzle; it’s another to know how to put them together. Queen of the Wave represents the work of dozens of musicians and makers from around the globe, performing under the guiding vision of Malmström and Spectrum. It was, as contributing singer Boi Crompton put it, “a labour of love for all of us involved”. Despite a limited budget, no expense was spared, and no corners were cut. These guys busted their butts to make this album, much of it on their own dime, consuming every spare minute of their time.
Where vaguely similar albums like the famed Since I Left You by the Avalanches and Pepe’s own 2003 album Beatitude heavily employed samples, Queen of the Wave is completely original. Pepe Deluxé went through the effort of sourcing, fixing, making, and recording the analog gear that gives the album its unique yet familiar sound. Rather than using a stock sample of the sound of a storm, Pepe borrowed mechanical wind and rain machines from the Helsinki Theatre Museum. While it would have been easier to use an existing recording of a pipe organ than figure out how to effectively mic the French Romantic pipe organ at the Kallio Church, Pepe followed through on their ambition.
They also had the patience to delay the release of Queen of the Wave by two years to wait for the completion of the six-year renovation of the Great Stalacpipe Organ, which had fallen into disrepair since its creation in 1956. They had a “sound-alike” version ready just in case the renovation project failed, but they committed years of their lives to doing it right, because doing things right matters. On paper, the difference may be minimal, but it is all part of embedding the album with its own fingerprint, its own soul.
The album contains recordings from the Luray Caverns, Kallio Church, Hvitträsk (the studio home of renowned architect Eliel Saarinen), Boston, Texas, New York, Brisbane, Prague, and several locations in Finland. The sound of all of these recordings, taken from so many different places, reflects some of the energy and history of their surroundings. That may sound a little on the New Age side, but Marconi himself believed sounds resonate through history, and with a powerful enough microphone, one could hear them all. On top of that, Pepe Deluxé recorded over the master tapes for their third album Spare Time Machine for Queen of the Wave, with the intention of embedding within it residual traces of their 2007 record.
There are a thousand layers to this onion, and a thousand ways to listen to the album. In the car? Great. At home? Awesome. Crappy, old speakers? Still good. Headphones? Near orgasmic. The louder you can manage to listen to it, the different settings and circumstances in which you approach it, the more intensely you study the processes, technique, and mixture of science and mythology, the more layers appear discoverable. Yet, its monumental depth is packaged in the form of an accessible pop opera. Queen of the Wave is on the conceptual level of Edgar Varèse and Joe Meek, with the compositional and studio chops rivaling the best releases from Motown, Mo’ Wax, and Brain Records.
“That’s what I grew up with, the idea of the album, and saving money for a month to be able to buy one was a regular occurrence. You would go out and get it, then run home and put it on. Sometimes it would be a huge disappointment, but then other times the liner notes were great. With Frank Zappa, for instance, you had the description of the freaks scenes. Music is the centrepiece, but I would like to think what we have done provides some of the feeling that we had when we were young. It’s crazy because in the late 1960s and early 1970s records had the best sound quality, and the most information.” – James Spectrum via musicOHM
Taking inspiration from the writing style and pop experimentation of the likes of Enoch Light, Queen of the Wave is a real album, in the best historical sense. Aside from the magnitude and coherence of the music and story, the physical artifact of the album was also the product of intense effort by the band. From the front cover to the mosh of info on the back and everything in between, the album is a true work of art.
The liner notes are packed with stylized images and information. James Spectrum-created graphic dioramas and intense collages, which help to show rather than tell the story of the album and its creation. You can see the capital of Atlantis at nightfall, the Venusian landscape, a gallery of well-framed pictures showing various aspects of the recording process, cut-outs of the gear they used, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not-style cabinet of curiosities, and more. Every square inch of the album is richly detailed, embroidered, and complete.
There are some who see Queen of the Wave as corny. However, there is a big difference between corn and camp. Corniness denotes banal sentimentality, whereas camp is a deliberately exaggerated and theatrical style. There is nothing trite about this album, yet it is undeniably extravagant and operatic, a larger than life work of joy and poignancy.
According to the band, the vibe of Queen of the Wave was more heavily influenced by Mario Bava’s famed 1968 film Danger: Diabolik than by any concept album. Featuring a score by Ennio Morricone of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly fame, Danger: Diabolik is notable for being one of the most faithful comic book adaptations in cinema history, not just telling the story but capturing the feel of a comic. That’s akin to what Pepe set out to achieve with Queen of the Wave, a world you see with your ears. And they no doubt succeeded.
Yet, as deeply researched as Pepe’s influences are, Queen of the Wave is a vanguard album that only could have been made now. Tackling themes investigated by contemporary experimental music, Queen of the Wave is an obsessive, fetishistic appropriation of the past; yet, through their research and experimentation, Pepe is constantly pushing their sound to futuristic ends. Their songs combine high and lo-fi sounds, and there’s lots of purposeful play with surface noise, hence their recording over the master tapes of their previous album and the use of a wire recorder specifically because it produces horribly thin recordings with a lot of mechanical noise. The fact that much of the album was pieced together through online collaboration with artists around the world reflects our proliferating globalism and Internet culture.
Where experimental music like that from Oneohtrix Point Never follows in the conceptual tradition of Henry Cowell and Pierre Schaeffer, the experimental edge of Pepe Deluxé is more in line with the studio producer efforts of Les Paul and Joe Meek—different, but no less radical. While simultaneously reflecting the past and the present, they built Queen of the Wave to last. Where so many flash in the pan artists are cranking out dubstep, chillwave, lo-fi, and whatever else happens to be considered “best new music” today, this album will never show signs of aging. It’s already a 1969 vintage bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but with oh so many modern twists. It all adds up to a future-proof work of art.